The Impeccability of Christ

I wanted to share a question that’s been on my mind for months now, and am curious to hear your own thoughts on it. It stems from my own reflections on the PCA’s (Presbyterian Church in America) Report on Human Sexuality written for the 2020 General Assembly. (A copy of the report can be found here.) I don’t necessarily want to discuss the entire document at this juncture, but I wanted to specifically highlight a foundational doctrine upon which their stance is taken.

My not-so-basic question is, “Was it possible for Jesus to sin?”

There is a doctrine at the heart of Reformed theological thought (and I doubt they’re alone in this) called impeccability, which basically means that not only did Jesus not sin, but that it was furthermore impossible for him to do so. On page 10 of the report, the committee quotes from Berkhof’s tome, Systematic Theology:

“We ascribe to Christ not only natural, but also moral, integrity or moral perfection, that is sinlessness. This means not merely that Christ could avoid sinning (potuit non peccare), and did actually avoid it, but also that it was impossible for Him to sin (non potuit peccare) because of the essential bond between the human and divine natures” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 318).

I’d heard of this doctrine before, but I hadn’t thought much about it until I read this report. It struck me as rather problematic on a number of levels. Namely, it calls into question just how much Jesus is “able to sympathize with our weaknesses” and has been “tempted in every way, just as we are”. (Heb. 4:15)

I was curious how this doctrine sits with you?

We talk a lot about how Christ is the center of and our starting point in spiritual formation, so it stands that what we believe about Christ has a profound impact on how we relate to him. :slight_smile:


Hi @kathleen,

What an interesting question.

It reminds me of the familiar and famous passage at the start of Calvin’s Institutes:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone… Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him… On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.

I think it is in this duality of reverential worship of Christ, and honesty with ourselves, that we grow to understand both our own nature as well as that of our Maker.

I also think we should feel free to depart from confessional standards whenever they cannot be substantiated by Scripture. At the same time, these confessions can serve as clear windows that help us to better perceive the meaning of the Scriptures. The radical individualism in interpretation has its advantages, but it can also disconnect us from the wisdom of an entire community and tradition. And of course, there are a variety of confessional standards, so we do have to exercise some judgment about which one to follow!

I think if we follow the argument in Hebrews from chapter 4 through to chapter 7, we find that the author wants to emphasize that Jesus is a relatable and a sufficient Savior.

We find in Hebrews 7:26-28,

For this is the kind of high priest we need: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day, as high priests do—first for their own sins, then for those of the people. He did this once for all time when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak, but the promise of the oath, which came after the law, appoints a Son, who has been perfected forever.

Yes, we need to affirm that Jesus is fully human. But we also affirm that he is fully and always God. And God, of course, cannot sin. It’s inconceivable for God to not be holy.

In his commentary on Hebrews, R.T. Frances writes, “It is the combination of his humanness and his sinlessness that makes him uniquely qualified to be the Savior of humanity (“he must be humanly perfect as well as perfectly human,” Montefiore, 129).”

Two points come to my mind. The first is that Jesus’ human nature was not fallen. Second, it was united to the Second Person of the Trinity.

So what does it mean that he was tempted? Stephen Wellum offers this explanation in The Person of Christ: An Introduction,

…even though Christ was unfallen and impeccable, the Son, as our covenant representative, had to render human obedience for us. The Son’s action in and through his human nature did not change the integrity of that nature; he lived, acted, and faced every temptation as a true man to redeem us…

Jesus is impeccable because he is the eternal Son who subsists and acts in both natures, but it is also because of his reliance on the Spirit at work in him that Jesus did not sin. From Jesus’s conception, the Spirit sanctified, gifted and empowered the Son in his humanity, and Jesus, through his entire life, obeyed for us as a man by the Spirit…

What does this mean for us?

I think, first, it means that we can take far greater joy in our union with Christ and that the Spirit has filled us.

Our salvation is not just that we “believed the gospel” - as wonderful as that reality is - but that we are now united to Christ and filled with the Spirit. Therefore, we have all the more reason to be holy, just as Jesus was without sin.

I look forward to learning from other perspectives on this question.


Hi @kathleen,

I think that this document could be a really helpful resource for many churches actually, even if not everything is agreed on. It looks like it gives some sound Biblical direction for the topics involved.

First of all, I learned a new word in the document, ‘Concupiscence’! I’ll have to squeeze that into my next dinner time conversation. :slightly_smiling_face:

With regards to your question, I understand why it is problematic. How can Christ completely understand our human struggle if it was impossible for him to sin? We’re of course told in Hebrews 4:15 that,

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

I’ve sometimes wondered, “was Jesus tempted with X thought? did Jesus want to do Y?”

I’ve done little serious study on this issue, but on reading the document, I found helpful the following distinction between ‘morally neutral’ temptations and ‘morally illicit’ temptations (Statement 6, page 9):

There are some temptations God gives us in the form of morally neutral trials, and other temptations God never gives us because they arise from within as morally illicit desires (James 1:2, 13-14). When temptations come from without, the temptation itself is not sin, unless we enter into the temptation. But when the temptation arises from within, it is our own act and is rightly called sin.

As we see in the gospels, we see Jesus tempted from without, by Satan in the desert. There is no record of Christ struggling with a temptation arising within. However, that alone is not enough to prove that he didn’t have an internal temptation. So does Hebrews 4:15 include morally neutral temptations only, or morally illicit ones as well?

According to the definition from the document, a morally illicit temptation is a form of sin. Footnote 15 quotes John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation:

epithumei—‘it lusts.’ It is raising up in the heart, and proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying, as it were, whether the soul will close with its suggestions, or how far it will carry them on, though it does not wholly prevail.

I find it hard to see how Christ could be spotless if he struggled with ‘morally illicit’ sin, yet how then has he suffered everything known to man if he didn’t struggle with it? The only explanation that I can see is that by suffering morally neutral sin - external temptations - he has experienced what it is like to face a temptation without having any internal carnal lusts. This is the only sense that the doctrine of the impeccability of Christ works for me. I don’t think this fully answers the question, given that the report’s definition says that morally neutral temptations come from God, and morally illicit temptations come from Satan or the flesh. Is it sufficient to say that Christ knew the experience of temptation, be it from God (through Satan in the desert - does this logically work??) although not every lustful temptation?

Food for thought!


Thank you both so much for your replies!

First off, Carson, thank you for the thoughts on human nature and fallen-ness. It reminded me of one of the reasons why Jesus can be considered a “Second Adam” – that he, like the first Adam, did not begin with a fallen nature. He would have had a similar human nature to Adam, rather than us, who are born into a fallenness. The first Adam, though, was given the freedom to choose obedience or disobedience. He and Eve, in their uncorrupted state, had the opportunity to obey perfectly. Yet disobey they did, and now the rest of us don’t have that opportunity – our nature is corrupted. We can obey, sure, but we cannot do it perfectly.

Christ, on the other hand, had the same human nature as Adam but had an additional, divine nature. He could not (and therefore did not) disobey, right?

I have been doing a thought experiment to try to understand the “could not” (his impeccability), and I’d love to hear your feedback on it. My starting question is, can Jesus’ not-being-able-to-sin be likened to me not being able to, say, deliberately stab my father? That is, although I possess a freedom of agency to pick up a knife and stab him, I literally cannot for I am too bound by my love for him to do such harm to him. It is entirely against my will to do so.

Similarly, did Jesus, as a human, possess the agency to, say, walk away from the cross? I can’t see how he would not have it, for he is fully human. Yet it was impossible for him to do so because he was so bound by the love contained in the divine union for each other and for creation, that there was no way he was going to go contrary to the will of the Father. His will was to do the will of the Father (Jn 4:34) even though he may have wished/desired that there be another way. (See his prayer in Gethsemane.)

So, perhaps, when I ask, is it possible, what I’m wondering about is more his agency rather than his will. (Which ties into the other thread which Alison began on Free Will and Agency! :laughing:) So even though the agency to choose disobedience exists in Jesus, his will is so contrary to it that it would be inconceivable of him to do so.

@alison, I want to further respond to your post on temptation, but it’s gotten too late here! Will get on in the morning with some thoughts. :slight_smile:


Hi @kathleen,

From my perspective, that’s an unresolvable mystery. I say this because I don’t see a way to ever fully persuade all Christians to be libertarian or Reformed in their understanding of human agency. And the philosophical considerations aside, we can hardly understand our own desires!

But to sum it up:

For those who embrace a compatibilist understanding of “free will”, I think the answer is no, he could not sin.

For those who embrace a libertarian understanding of “free will”, I think the answer is, there was the possibility of sinning, but he never did sin.

Here’s how Gerald Bray approaches this question in his work God is Love,

Could Jesus, as a man, have disobeyed the will of God? This is a tricky question. At one level, the answer to this must be yes because Jesus was tempted just as we are, yet he did not sin. If it had been impossible for him to sin, such a statement would be meaningless, and he could not have been tempted. On the other hand, Jesus was also God, and so if he had sinned as a man he would have been sinning against himself. That really makes no sense, so we have to say that, although he could have sinned in his human nature, he did not do so because he was the Son of God. For some people that will sound as if his humanity was compromised by his divinity, but that is not right. What stopped Jesus from sinning was not his divine nature but the relationship with the Father which was his from all eternity. That relationship, far from being beyond our grasp, is what he came to earth to give us, so that we might also become sinless in the sight of God. Thus, although the sinlessness of Jesus makes him different from other human beings, it does not cut him off from us because it is the very thing that he came to give us, who are just as capable of receiving it as he was of living it out in his earthly life. The difference is that he is sinless by nature, whereas we are made sinless by being united with him and thus gaining access to that nature. In other words, his sinlessness belongs to him and our sinlessness belongs to him as well, because it is only in and through him that we can acquire it (578).

Bray comes at the sinlessness of Christ from this angle because he believes we have free will. As he writes later in the book,

Having said that, though, there is no doubt that we feel we are free to decide, and this feeling is more than just an illusion. Human beings are not machines controlled by a supernatural mind. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and decision-making powers are part of that. The sphere in which we operate may be limited by our finitude, but within it we are “gods,” as Scripture says, because we have a freedom similar to God’s.146 There is something in us that is more like him than like the world around us, and it is that which gives us the ability to make choices that other creatures cannot make. Ultimately, of course, we are also creatures, and God knows what he has made. In the depths of his being, he understands us in ways that we shall never be able to fathom; he knows the secrets of our hearts even when we do not know them ourselves. Trying to probe the depths of that mystery is impossible because our minds are not able to grasp all the factors involved (657-658).

Either way, whether Reformed or not, evangelical theologians affirm that Jesus was without sin.

Now imagine the immense pressure of a human being willingly going to the Cross to pay for the sins of the world out of love for God and others. As you mentioned, the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane was truly awful, beyond all reckoning. And yet, it is the case that Jesus remained perfectly obedient.

What should we conclude from this?

One place we find reflection on it is in an early hymn of the Christian church, recorded in Philippians 2:6-11. What is the purpose? It is…

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
and every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In fact, we are called to “adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).

Have we set before ourselves the goal of perfect obedience to God?

I am not suggesting that we will ever obtain this in this life, but that is our ultimate destination.


A mystery, indeed! :laughing: Maybe @alison and I need to do a book club…

…as we seem to be asking similar questions from different angles!

Thank you for the Gerald Bray except as well! He seems to have voiced exactly what I am wrestling with, so I’ll make a note to check out that book. :slight_smile:

For me, all of this has stemmed from the last couple of years as my old way of relating to God was upended. God, who was distant, out there, cold taskmaster/employer, always looking at other people and things, became God, who was near to me, desired my presence and looks on me and others with compassion not annoyance. I now have a different framework for getting to know God and relating to him. He has become more subject than object!

And, Alison, as I’ve been composing a reply to you, I’ve decided I need to start a new, tangential thread on temptation, and, particularly, the temptation of Jesus. So. Much. To. Unpack. :smile:


That’s fine, it’s a complex topic with layers upon layers.

The abstract to that book looks tantalising too…especially the question it looks to address:

Is the feeling that we could have made different decisions just an illusion? And if our choices are not free, why should we be held morally responsible for our actions?

I’m going to try and get hold of that book.


In some circles there are those that have a hard time accepting the thoughts that Jesus as the God man (or any deity) would have to deal with the unpleasantries of daily life, bad breath, body odor, gas, nature calls, sleep and almost all daily life-decisions. If I am not mistaken, this is one of the arguments the Muslims use against the divinity of Jesus, and I believe Elijah used this thought as he mocked the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

27 It happened at noon that Elijah mocked them and said, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god! Perhaps he is meditating, or ⌊is using the bathroom⌋, or is on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must wake up!” (1 Ki 18:27–30).

So, to your point (I think) how do we deal with the idea of a temptation that would cause Jesus to sin and if Jesus could not sin then why the temptation?

I found this in a commentary:

It is objected to the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability that it is inconsistent with his temptability. A person who cannot sin, it is said, cannot be tempted to sin.

This is not correct; any more than it would be correct to say that because an army cannot be conquered, it cannot be attacked . Temptability depends upon the constitutional susceptibility, while impeccability depends upon the will. So far as his natural susceptibility, both physical and mental, was concerned, Jesus Christ was open to all forms of human temptation excepting those that spring out of lu$t or corruption of nature. But his peccability, or the possibility of being overcome by these temptations, would depend upon the amount of voluntary resistance which he was able to bring to bear against them. Those temptations were very strong, but if the self-determination of his holy will was stronger than they, then they could not induce him to sin, and he would be impeccable. And yet plainly he would be temptable. (Emphasis mine)

Shedd, W. G. T. (2003). Dogmatic theology (A. W. Gomes, Ed.; 3rd ed., pp. 662–663). P & R Pub.

The original publication date was 1888, 1889 and 1894. Reformist to the core.


Thank you, @jimmy!

This is such a helpful and succinct way of stating it.


Hello again! So I’ve changed my mind…again. :laughing:

I’ve been meditating on the James passages, and several threads have popped up for me. So it’s probably those that will end up as separate conversations. Ha! But I did want to engage with what you wrote re. impeccability.

I’ve been struggling a bit with this document because I don’t know if I wholeheartedly agree with their breakdown/classifications of desire and temptations. However, I recognize that what we’re also wrestling with is the usage of the same Greek word (translated in the ESV separately as “trials”, “testing”, and “temptation”) in several different places… James 1:2, 12-14. I have often understood that it is God who sends tests or trials (Deut. 8:2), which, for those who love him, are for our ultimate good. On the other hand, it is Satan who tempts…who entices into evil. In Jesus’ (and Israel’s) narrative, it was the Spirit who lead him out into the wilderness (to test, presumably) and it was Satan who followed close behind to tempt (Luke 4:1-2). So we’re wrestling with a duality of one Greek word and the understanding that God is not the source of the suggestion of evil.

All this to say, I’m not sure I like the usage of “morally illicit” and “morally neutral” to describe that duality, but I understand why those categories are being used!

Suffice to say for now that I am much more inclined at present to agree with Augustine’s view on temptation as noted in footnote 12, page 8 of the document. I also don’t like the dichotomy of “temptations that arise from without” and “temptations that arise from within”…but, again, I understand why those categories are being used! I just need to formulate my argument against them. :smile:

I am similarly wondering if he, in participating in our humanity, could understand how lu$t could take hold and drive a person without him actually experiencing it taking hold in himself. But that has to do with “desire”, and that will no doubt be a separate thread!


I am troubled by one question in this discussion. If Adam and Jesus had two different natures, in that Adam was able to choose between disobedience and obedience while Jesus was not, then how can God be just?

Was Jesus’ testing in the wilderness all a farce? Did Jesus really have a choice? Was it a false choice because he wasn’t able to make the wrong choice?

If Jesus was NOT ABLE to choose then God is not perfectly just because he tipped the scales of Justice. If Jesus leveraged his divine nature to stay impeccable then God cheated.

I think instead that Jesus was required to choose. He did so in his humanity by means of humbly relying on God’s word and relying on the Spirit. The fact that he must be and stay impeccable does not necessitate that he could not choose disobedience.

Philippians‬ ‭2:5-8‬ really highlights the key element in that Jesus did not use his divine nature for his own advantage.

Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.

@kathleen thanks for bringing up this topic. I had never heard the phrase “Impeccability of Christ” before this and I’m glad for the chance to think through these concepts. I hope my reply is beneficial to the conversation.


Hi, @chris! Thank you so much for adding your thoughts to this thread. I really appreciate you mentioning Phil. 2 and Jesus not using his divine nature to his own advantage. I’d not necessarily thought of it from that angle. Yet, I realize that one of my frustrations with this doctrine has been precisely that he did seem to be using his divine nature to his advantage. Thank you for naming that for me!

I agree that the sting of his temptation in the desert (and in the Garden of Geth.) was precisely because of the possibility contained in the power that he had.

I wonder if using the term “probable” is helpful in this scenario? That is, yes, it was possible for Jesus to disobey, but due to his relationship with the Father and though the strengthening of Holy Spirit (and what have you) it was so highly improbable that he would do so that it is considered impossible. I don’t know if that helps the philosophical argument at all, but it has helped me, at least. If there are holes in that, do let me know! :slight_smile:


I suppose it does help in terms of talking about the concept in a way that helps our human mind comprehend the mystery. I just think the same probability should also be ascribed to Adam. That may be a stretch for some but it feels necessary to reconcile the conversation with the reality of a perfectly just God.

I think Phil. 2 shows that while Christ did not lose his divine nature, he also did not use his divine nature. Jesus himself said that he could access the divine nature by summoning 12 legions of angels (Matt 26:53).

I think this perspective also adds to our hope of being conformed into Christ’s image. If Jesus was sinless because of his divinity then what can we hope to attain. We can never grow into a divine nature. However, if instead he is sinless through humility and reliance on God’s word then there is hope of transformation through the work of the Spirit.

Overall this is fun to discuss and try to wrap our heads around a mystery that confounds the angels. :exploding_head: